“The Great Raid” is “inspired by the true events” of the Raid on Cabanatuan in the Philippines in WWII. The raid by U.S. Rangers was the most successful raid on a prisoner of war camp in American History. The movie was based on two acclaimed books on the subject: The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William Breuer and Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides. It was directed by John Dahl. Because of financial problems at Miramax, the film did not make it to theaters until three years after completion.
The movie opens with a necessary summary of the situation in the Philippines connecting its fall with the January, 1945 setting of the film. Footage from the National Archives is effectively used with the narration. The opening scene recreates the massacre of American prisoners on the island of Palowan by a unit of the Kampeitei (the Japanese version of the Gestapo) led by Major Nagai (Motoki Kobayashi). Later, American guerrilla leader Maj. Lapham informs Gen. Krueger (Dale Dye!) that the same type of atrocity could take place at Camp Cabanatuan. Krueger decides to send part of the 6th Ranger Battalion to rescue the prisoners. The unit is commanded by Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), but he assigns Capt. Prince (James Franco) as operational head. The mission will involve going thirty miles behind enemy lines to liberate a camp that there is limited intelligence about. It is extremely risky, but noone questions the decision to use elite troops to rescue the opposite.
The movie is a trio of plot lines. One third of the film is dedicated to life in the camp. This focuses on a small group of prisoners including the ranking officer Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes). He is suffering from malaria. His best friend Capt. Redding (Morton Csokas) is suffering from the desire to escape even though the Japanese have threatened to execute ten prisoners for each escapee. The prisoners are in terrible shape and things get worse when Maj. Nagai arrives. This movie does not take the recent approach of sympathy for the other side. Nagai is malevolent and there is a very powerful execution scene that ramps up his hissability. In fact, this is not the only execution scene in the movie.
The second plot line concentrates on Margarat Utinsky (Connie Nielson). She is an American nurse who is working with the Filipino Underground in Manila. She is smuggling medicine into the camp. The movie manufactures an unrequited romance between Gibson and Utinsky. At one point she is tortured by the Kampeitei and members of her cell are executed.
The other third is the mission of the Rangers. Mucci and Prince hook up with Filipino guerrillas led by Juan Pajota (Cesar Montano). They reach the village of Patero where the final plans are developed. Prince will lead the assault on the camp under cover of darkness. The biggest problem will be the daylight approach which requires crawling 800 yards over flat ground to reach the camp. Pajota suggests the distraction of a fly-over by an American plane. Part two of the plan involves Pajota’s guerrillas neutralizing a large Japanese unit camped nearby. Part three has another guerrilla group blocking reinforcements from arriving from Cabanatuan City. All three parts must work flawlessly for the mission to be successful.
“The Great Raid” was a terrible flop in the theaters. It cost $80 million, but made only $11 million. Although not its fault, sitting on the shelf for three years made it seem like damaged goods. Plus Miramax did a poor and lackluster job of marketing. The movie deserved better. The story of the raid deserved to be publicized and the movie is a worthy attempt to bring the historical event to public attention in an entertaining format. Unfortunately, most of the public is unaware of the existence of the film and thus is unaware of one of the greatest military tales in American History.
Critics were unduly harsh on the movie (imagine that!) Most of the criticism was for the slow build-up to the raid itself. You know, the same people who would have carped had the movie been just action with little exposition. The romance was also lambasted and here the critics are on more solid ground. It feels forced and on first glance it appears that the Utinsky character is fictional and the Underground element was added to make her an action heroine. Fault was also found with the lack of character development within the Ranger unit. There is not much coverage of soldier behavior or talk. However, critics missed that “The Great Raid” was a throw-back to the Old School small unit movies where the unit itself is a character.
The movie is very underrated. The acting is serviceable. Some will complain about the lack of emotion, but we are talking about emaciated prisoners, disciplined soldiers, and secretive Resistance members. What would you expect? Franco is almost morose, but the real Prince had that type of personality. Bratt also underplays, which is less acceptable considering Mucci was charismatic and publicity-savvy. Nielson does a good job as the feisty Utinsky, but Fiennes is left with little to do other than look prisonerish. Acting honors goes to Montano. The movie’s biggest accolade goes to its portrayal of this Filipino hero.
The production is nothing special. The score is understated and has some good suspense when needed. The cinematography uses muted colors to good effect. The effects are not mimicking the “Saving Private Ryan / Band of Brothers” style. TGR is more comfortably placed in the Old School category. The film builds to the assault which is well worth the wait. When the first shot is fired, the screen is ablaze with violence unabated for a long stretch. This scene clearly depicts the American military’s propensity to deal with combat situations via extreme firepower. It also clearly depicts Hollywood’s love of explosions.
Ghost Soldiers is one of my favorite books. When I read it years ago, I was on the edge of my seat for the raid. I remember thinking what a great movie could potentially come from the book, but I expected the worst. When I heard TGR had been shelved and then fizzled in the theaters, my fears seemed to be confirmed. I have to say the movie was a pleasant surprise. I do not know if it could have been much better without going way off the accuracy reservation. The sad thing is that by adjusting the original “Missing in Action” type script in favor of accuracy, the studio probably lost a lot of money and has probably vowed not to make that “mistake” again. How accurate is it? See History or Hollywood, but beware of spoilers.
GRADE = B